What if Veritaserum was Real?

For those of you who don’t know what Veritaserum is (seriously?), it is a magical truth potion from the universe of Harry Potter. As a collegiate debater, I have faced my fair share of meta motions. One of the most intriguing ones that I have come across is: ‘This house prefers a world where no one can lie.’ Although it sounds like a very common, overused motion, it got me thinking, is it really possible? What would the world be like? And would I want to live in that world?

Let us start with the first question: can Veritaserum indeed be a reality one day? Well, let me break this to you- truth serums very much exist. In fact, they have been available since the 1920’s. They are primarily mind-altering (psychoactive) drugs which slow down the process of transfer of messages from the spinal cord to the brain. Lying usually requires a lot of effort, unless you are a compulsive liar. These drugs simply hinder your capability to concentrate and thus, make it difficult to lie. They don’t, however, completely inhibit your ability to lie. Some common examples include sodium thiopental, scopolamine and sodium amytal. Historically, they have been used for various other purposes. During World War II, they were used as anti-anxiety drugs on soldiers. Until 2011, they were also used as anaesthetics.

Very rarely have truth serums been used for interrogation though, due to ethical conflicts. A myriad of historical examples, however, portray the positives of using such drugs in a criminal investigation. The 2007 Noida serial killer case (in India) could only be solved when the suspect confessed, under the influence of sodium amytal, to the heinous crimes that had been committed by him. However, the use of truth serums during interrogation is considered to be a direct violation of the Fifth Amendment of the US Constitution (the Right to remain silent) and is, thus, illegal in the US. Many consider the administration of truth serums, in order to extract information, to not only be a violation of the human right to be free from degrading treatment but also a form of torture. Besides, these drugs have some serious side-effects, including the development of false memories, addiction and even death in case of an overdose.

In spite of such concerns, research is on to find and develop a drug that can completely prevent a person from lying, including compulsive liars, without any grave side-effects: the ultimate Veritaserum. But just because something can be done doesn’t mean that it should be done. Whether it is morally right or wrong requires thinking through a lot of different things.

One side of the debate might argue that taking away the right to lie is a severe encroachment upon the right to choose. At times, it might, in fact, be necessary to lie- white lies. Thomas Paine once said, “He who dares not offend cannot be honest”. In a world where being polite is deemed a great virtue, it is impossible to get by without lying, if one hopes to follow the etiquettes set by a genteel society.

When a child, still in the formative years, tries to learn something new, we provide them encouragement shrouded in little lies. This is necessary to prevent them from losing interest or giving up. It is also unfortunate that the modern world isn’t very progressive when it comes to accepting the LGBTQIA+ community, often forcing people of the community to lie about their sexuality or gender to save themselves from questions, comments and bullies.

At times, lies are crucial to one’s safety. Celebrities lie about where they live to prevent stalkers from breaking in, spies put on a disguise and lie to unveil the secrets of underground institutions and terrorist cells, while also ensuring personal safety against potential harm from the people they spy upon.

When doctors fail to see alternative options to save a person’s life, they often resort to placebo. This involves actively lying to the patient about the effects the drugs have been having on the person’s health- telling them that the medicines have actually been working well and that they will get well soon when that is probably not the case. In some cases, patients actually have a positive response to this. While many see this practice as unethical, owing to the fact that a doctor has to blatantly lie to a patient, others think that using placebo as a last resort to help them is justified.

While most of these cases are rather niche, there are many which are not as individualistic. Taking a step back and looking at the big picture, reveals other interesting aspects. The avenues that greatly affect our day to day lives like politics, religion, media, etc. tend to hurt us mostly when lies in some form or the other are involved.

Let’s talk politics. Populist demagogues, who tend to make fake promises based on what the majority of the populace desires instead of using rational arguments, are the biggest disgrace to modern politics. Their campaigns and popularity are based on lies. Commoners fall prey to their words because these leaders pander to what people already want to hear. Examples of such leaders include Adolf Hitler and Benito Mussolini. Stephen Hawking once tagged even Donald Trump as a demagogue. It isn’t unknown to any of us what their ‘reigns’ have been like. Even though stripping politicians of the ability to lie won’t solve the problems that pervade politics, it does ensure that commoners do not get cheated into hoping for something that is never meant to happen.

Another thing to affect our lives immensely is crime. False charges, corruption and plantation of fake evidence are not unusual. It is common practice among convicts, facing the possibility of a long sentence, to lie about the severity of their crimes to hinder the prosecution. Psychopaths and sociopaths are able to lie without any remorse whatsoever. Most serial killers can be classified as either of the two and their flawless lying makes them incredibly difficult to spot. The problems of adjudication, conviction and prosecution will simply fail to exist in a world where people are unable to lie.

Unethical marketing cheats people into believing that a product provides certain benefits which it actually doesn’t. Tech giants like Google, Amazon, Facebook, Qualcomm and so on have come under a lot of heat in recent years. Immense capital is spent on investigating these companies to find the truth. In a lie-less world, these problems would simply cease to exist.

Cases of fraud often take several years to be solved and have justice served for, like the Enron scandal. It is easier to live in a world where committing fraud is an impossibility than to have so many duped before spending big bucks to rectify the situation. The morality of the work done by certain companies itself is questionable. Take Ashley Madison for example, it is a dating site catering to those who are currently in a committed relationship or married. The profits of this company are based on how well they are able to lie without taking into consideration the fact that they hurt people in the process.

There is widespread misinformation in the world owing to the phenomena of ‘fake news’. Lies about the intentions of a party creates misunderstandings, leading to conflict and divided masses. Social media has enabled lying to a whole new extent. It is fashionable to lie about not having make-up on or not having had plastic surgery in the past, or even about living perfect lives. These set unrealisable standards of lifestyle and beauty for everyone. This eventually culminates in depression among teenagers and adults who fail to achieve these unreal standards- something that is more common now than ever. In fact, celebrities, like K-Pop idols, are forced to undergo surgeries to comply with certain beauty standards.

Another thing that shapes society drastically is religion. Problems arise from lies about what God desires. While this can be used as a powerful positive tool too, there exist other alternatives to achieve the same. For example, it is better to tell a person not to cut a tree because they provide us with oxygen rather than using some religious reference to drive the point home. This is because, for one, atheism is on the rise and will, in the future, be the dominant ‘belief’ (atheism is expected to overtake religion by 2041). These atheists associate religion with regressiveness of thought and religious justifications are unacceptable to them. Secondly, religious beliefs do not have the same appeal among people belonging to different religions or sects.

While freedom of choice is essential for everyone, this freedom cannot affect someone else- hurt the other person or encroach upon their freedom. Social contract theorists argue that everyone in a society moves into a contract with each other and the government, and the government can partially take away certain rights of individuals to ensure greater benefits for society at large. If this ‘sacrifice’ is what society operates upon, I personally feel that it is justified to take away the right to lie if greater benefits can be ensured in the process.  

Not all problems can be solved by just stopping people from lying. A world where no one can lie is not the ideal world. Crimes will be committed. Bad people will continue to exist. They will have evil intentions; they just will not be able to lie about them. While it might seem that taking away the right to lie infringes upon individual rights, the greater benefits it provides makes me question if the argument of ‘rights’ is sufficient grounds to argue against it. A world like this, however, is a reality left in store for those who come after us (unless someone is secretly preparing for a Nobel Prize). For now, we are doomed to live in a world of lies, fraud and betrayal where we can only hope that the ones we trust the most do not lie to us.


Oindrila Ghosh

I am a student of Chemical Engineering at BITS Pilani and an Egyptology enthusiast, who loves reading about cold cases, creation and everything else that will probably never benefit me in my future career.

The Pangean does not condemn or condone any of the views of its contributors. It only gives them the space to think and write without hindrance.